Christine Darden: Navigating a High-Flying Engineering Career

By Stinson, Sonya | Diversity Employers, January-February 1994 | Go to article overview

Christine Darden: Navigating a High-Flying Engineering Career


Stinson, Sonya, Diversity Employers


U.S. government and industry leaders have a vision they hope will make America's beleaguered aerospace industry take off again: a commercial high-speed transport system that can make international flights in a fraction of the time now possible, but whose passengers won't have to pay astronomical fares to get on board, and whose operation won't harm the environment. At NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, Dr. Christine M. Darden is leading a team of researchers who are working to help that vision become reality. As Darden noted in a 1992 paper, "Though the United States has funded research programs on a supersonic transport since the late 1950s, it has never developed a commercial transport which cruises supersonically." ("The Importance of Sonic Boom Research in the Development of Future High Speed Aircraft," JOURNAL of the NTA, Winter 1992.) The challenge for the U.S. is to build an aircraft that is technologically superior to the Soviets' failed TU144, more economically viable than the Europeans' Concorde, and compatible with worldwide environmental concerns.

Darden is an engineering group leader in NASA's High Speed Research Program, which for the last five years has focused mainly on addressing three major environmental concerns associated with supersonic flight: eliminating the threat of ozone depletion, ensuring "acceptable" engine noise levels, and minimizing sonic boom--the crashing sound generated by pressure disturbances when an aircraft flies faster than the speed of sound. Darden heads the group that is studying sonic boom and designing models for low-boom aircraft.

"We design wind tunnel models using the computer," Darden says. "We come up with numbers to describe the model, then take it to the people who build the models for us. We then take the model into the wind tunnel, an enclosed area where we drive air past the model at very high speeds--Mach 2 or Mach 3--to project how the real airplane will behave in the air."

One possible solution to the sonic boom problem, Darden explains, is to restrict all supersonic travel to overwater flights only, so that the fewest number of people are affected.

When she's not conducting tests in the wind tunnel, or creating computer programs and research reports at her desk, Darden can usually be found in meetings with executives from Boeing, Douglas Aircraft, and other aerospace companies. "We try to work very closely with industry, so that the things that we learn can be transferred there rapidly," she says.

The former Portsmouth, Virginia high school math teacher's own transfer to a career in aeronautical engineering is a testimony to how far one can soar fueled with confidence and technical know-how.

In the mid-sixties, when her husband received a fellowship to study at Virginia State College, they moved to Petersburg, where she hoped to find another teaching job. Finding no openings in area schools, Darden sought assistance from the head of the math department at Virginia State, where she had once taken classes. The dean told her about a research assistantship in the physics department. Darden got the position, which enabled her to earn a master's degree in applied mathematics in addition to gaining experience conducting research in the aerosol physics lab. She also taught mathematics at the college for a year. Armed with an advanced degree, Darden set her sights on a new career--college teaching or perhaps even a non-academic job. By that time, the Dardens had moved to the Tidewater area, so she applied for work at Hampton Institute, Norfolk State University, and NASA--and got offers from all three. …

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